In May December, a narcissistic actress gets the role of her dreams: playing a woman who slept with, got pregnant by, and later married a twelve-year-old. It pits an actress desperate for fame against an emotionally hollow sociopath.

Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore in May December. (Netflix, 2023)

In an early scene in Todd Haynes’s May December, an actress named Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) is asked what drew her to a particularly controversial role, and her answer has the studied, airless polish of a phrase that has been memorized for easy repetition at a junket: “Well,” she says, smiling her broad, elastic smile, “it’s a very human and complex story.”

Haynes’s film is full of shots that depict women watching themselves, and each other, in mirrors, and it is extremely easy to imagine Elizabeth practicing this banal answer in one, too — rehearsing for her imminent performance in the press as a very human and complex artist, as opposed to an entirely craven opportunist whose ambition is her engine. Best known for her star-turn in a lowbrow television series about a veterinarian called, brilliantly, Norah’s Ark, she is convinced that this forthcoming “art house” film will finally win her critical acclaim; she also hopes that it will earn her the approval of her academic parents, who believe that acting is a job for stupid people.

In this instance, Elizabeth’s stupid-person job will see her embodying a bad one: Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore), who became a tabloid bogeywoman in the ’90s after sleeping with, and then becoming pregnant by, a twelve-year-old boy named Joe. Now, Joe and Gracie live in Georgia, playing happy families, and Elizabeth has arranged to spend time shadowing Gracie, ostensibly so that she can better humanize her on-screen. That the experience will be profoundly dehumanizing for everyone involved is evident from the moment Haynes shows Gracie slowly opening the fridge, the score ratcheting to a shrill crescendo as if she might find something evil and unthinkable inside it, and then saying, flatly: “I don’t think we’re going to have enough hot dogs.”

May December is, in other words, in and of itself a very human and complex story — it is also a dark, comic melodrama about sociopathy and pedophilia, a little reminiscent of the tonal high-wire act performed by Paul Verhoeven in his 2016 rape comedy Elle. All the clichés of what the critic Miriam Bale once called the “persona swap movie” are as identifiable in its staging — the aforementioned mirror shots, the copy-and-paste mannerisms, the villainous seductions — as they were in, say, 2010’s Black Swan, in which Portman also starred.

Here, though, the effect is haute-camp; self-consciously wicked. Nowhere is Haynes’s interest in the energizing friction between two opposing forces more apparent than in the inspired casting of his leads: Moore, a primarily emotional actress, is most famous for her raw, guttural depictions of unhappiness and madness, whereas Portman, a more calculated on-screen presence, has the air of a star who does her homework, her expressions so carefully calibrated that at times she appears masklike and opaque.

Hysteric, meet neurotic; oil, meet water.

The surprise is that while Elizabeth quickly reveals herself to be a frightening, dead-eyed narcissist, as fascinating as a psychological case study as she is repellent as a person, Gracie, who affects a baby voice and busies herself in the kitchen or at flower-arranging class in order to avoid confronting the extremely dark, extremely adult problem at the center of her life, turns out to have almost no there there. Even her choice to go by “Gracie,” and not “Grace,” indicates an inability to read the room, making her sound like nothing so much as an adult woman playing at being as innocent and defenseless as a child.

When Elizabeth visits a school and does a Q&A with a group of preteens, she is asked a question about filming sex scenes, and her answer — sexually explicit, wholly inappropriate, and delivered as if she is reading aloud from a Penthouse forum letter rather than addressing students — reveals her own failure to separate, as she puts it later, the things “grown-ups do” from the things children ought not to be exposed to. Gracie may be the one who has been to jail for her behavior, but both women are arrested in developmental terms, and if something in the former’s troubled childhood has led her to make a monstrous mistake, the latter’s deep-seated desire to be Mommy and Daddy’s golden girl has frozen her, attitudinally and perhaps sexually, somewhere in adolescence.

By the time Elizabeth starts muscling in on the family, trying to take Gracie’s place, there is a sense that she is doing so not only as deep-cover research for the role, but as a perverse, maybe subconscious expression of her lust for fame and power. Gracie is, of course, only famous for being a criminal, and in lieu of fans, she has enemies who mail her shit in pretty boxes; the only power she might ever have been argued to possess was the kind that one should never think to wield against a minor. May December’s sickest joke springs from Haynes’s aforementioned use of classic signifiers from films about divas trying on each other’s skins for size — in a face-off between a notable sex offender and a C-List television actress with no moral compass whatsoever, there is hardly a persona in the mix worth slipping into.

Can Elizabeth act? She can certainly project an image of polite and pleasant competency, even as she schemes to insinuate herself, cuckoo-like, into an already fucked-up marriage. In one scene, she reads a letter Gracie sent to Joe aloud to herself in, what else, the mirror, and Portman does a stellar job of mimicking Moore’s fluttery, pouting mien.

What I could not figure out was whether we were meant to see her reproduction of the babyish lisp in Gracie’s voice as accurate, or as a marker of her inability to quite attain the level of skill required of a truly brilliant artist. Julianne Moore is arguably one of our finest working actors, and in giving Gracie this peculiar tic she has set herself, and by extension Portman, a difficult task. Here, her ability to play an open wound with such effortless grace gives her the edge. Perhaps this is the point.

May December’s screenplay is itself a partial reimagining of the real-life case of Mary Kay Letourneau, a Californian teacher who was jailed for conducting what the tabloids often euphemistically described as an “affair” with her sixth-grade student in the ’90s, making the film Elizabeth is appearing in a simulacrum of a simulacrum for a viewer in our world, as diluted and as secondhand as gossip. Haynes ends his movie with Elizabeth on set, and in spite of her insistence that she’s starring in an “art house” film, what we see looks reductive and salacious, like a Lifetime movie. If it is not being made for TV, it certainly has the stink of television on it, and one senses that Mr and Mrs Berry will not be revising their opinion about acting as an art form on the strength of this performance.

Elizabeth, made up horribly like Gracie, insists on repeating and repeating an apparently unimportant line, as if she can’t quite get inside her subject. It is another oil-and-water contrast, played for laughs but also with a little swagger. For a less skilled director, hitting the right notes with material as bizarre and as uncomfortable as this would be a trial — for Haynes, it’s effortless.

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